1976, I was a staff member for Congressman Ron Paul. In November,
he had lost his campaign for re-election by fewer than 300 votes
out of over 180,000. My days as a Congressional staffer were numbered
in that month elected Tip O’Neill the Speaker of the House. O’Neill
was unopposed. A battle raged over who would be second in command:
House Majority Leader.
four candidates. The front-runner was Phil Burton of San Francisco,
probably the most far left Congressman in the House, with the possible
exception of his brother, John. Then there was Richard Bolling,
a Constitutional law expert with a lot of enemies. Jim Wright of
Ft. Worth was third. In fourth place was John McFall, who was plagued
by a scandal.
The rules were
clear: the bottom man was eliminated in each round of voting. First,
McFall was eliminated; then Bolling, but just barely. It came down
to Burton vs. Wright. Wright won, 148 to 147.
perceived as a moderate, but his success in pushing liberal legislation,
first as Majority Leader and later as Speaker of the House, was
the stuff of legend. He went along to get along, to cite another
Texas Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn. He knew how to work the
legislative system. He was to the House what Lyndon Johnson had
been to the Senate.
When one vote
determines the outcome of an election, anyone who voted can claim
to be the deciding factor. One such claimant was Congressman Larry
McDonald. He was the most conservative Democrat in the House in
1976. Arguably, he was the most conservative House Democrat in the
twentieth century. He was a member of the John Birch Society, and
had he not disappeared, along with the never-located Korean Airlines
Flight 007, in 1983, he would have become the head of the JBS.
At the initial
meeting of the Council for National Policy in early 1981, he and
I discussed old times and new times. He made an observation that
has stuck with me ever since.
vote of my career was my vote for Jim Wright for Majority Leader
in 1976. I thought Burton was a Communist. But if he had won,
House Democrats would not have gone along with him on a lot of
disastrous bills that Jim Wright pushed through.
made a choice. He looked at the voting record of two politicians
and decided that one of them was the lesser of two evils. In terms
of their voting records, this assessment was correct, but in terms
of their respective abilities to get bills passed and signed into
law by the newly elected President, Jimmy Carter, it was incorrect.
McDonald recognized this too late.
In 2008, Americans
will go to the polls, hold their noses with one hand and with their
other hand either punch holes in cards or tap computer screens.
They will vote for the lesser of two evils. This unhappy condition
is the outcome of decades of campaign reform laws passed by incumbent
politicians who wrote the reform laws so that they could remain
incumbent, which they generally did. This is the politics of political
action committees, huge bankrolls for media ad purchases, and spinmeisters.
Only a terminally
nave voter expects to see much good come out of a Presidential
election. He hopes only that the worst outcome will not result.
eternal. That’s the problem with hope. It keeps springing because
it rarely comes true.
of two evils, because he or she is not widely perceived as being
consistently evil, can gain cooperation from the uncommitted middle.
Meanwhile, he or she receives reduced opposition from the ideological
hard core on the other side of the issues.
In 1968, millions
of Republicans voted for Richard Nixon. They voted for him overwhelmingly
in 1972, the year after he had unilaterally severed the dollar from
gold. He had run back-to-back deficits of $25 billion — a huge annual
deficit in that era. It is unlikely that the ineffective gas bag
Hubert Humphrey would have had the courage to destroy the last traces
of the international gold standard. Yet Humphrey almost won in 1968.
Republican die-hards had kept this from happening.
In the summer
of 1972, Richard Whalen’s book, Catch
the Falling Flag: A Republican’s Challenge to His Party,
documented the story of the takeover of the Administration by Rockefeller
operatives. Whalen had been a speechwriter for Nixon during the
1968 campaign. He knew firsthand what had occurred. Republicans
paid no attention to his book in November. “Nixon is ours.” They
re-elected him in November.
General, John Mitchell, took control over the Nixon Administration
early. He had managed his 1968 campaign. He led the massacre of
the campaign’s conservative staffers even before Nixon was inaugurated,
as Whalen’s book revealed. He once made this observation: "Watch
what we do, not what we say." They did, and he went to jail,
but only because the tapes let the prosecution hear what they said.
closely associated with Nelson Rockefeller. Shortly after his inauguration
in 1969, Nixon
told of a meeting he had with Rockefeller:
in that respect a conversation I had with the Governor, at which
your new Attorney General was present, shortly after I had won
the nomination of the Republican Party in Miami Beach and the
Governor came in to congratulate me. Mr. Mitchell was there. I
started to introduce the two and Governor Rockefeller very graciously
said, "I know John Mitchell. You know, he is my lawyer. Or,
I should say, he was my lawyer."
Republicans overwhelming re-elected Nixon in 1972, preferring him
to liberal George McGovern, an ineffectual politician if there ever
was one, as his former Vice Presidential running mate, Thomas Eagleton,
had learned earlier in the year. Nixon was perceived as the lesser
of two evils.
A replay of
this scenario took place with George H. W. Bush in 1988. The ineffective
Democratic dork from Massachusetts would have had no power to do
much of anything. But Republicans voted for Bush. Bush’s White House
was run by James Baker, just as Reagan’s had been whenever Reagan
wasn’t paying attention, which was most of the time. Republicans
did not notice or else did not care if they did notice.
If Al Gore
had been elected in 2000, we would not have the Iraq war today.
We would have had an insufferable bore in the White House, but not
the Patriot Act.
There is a
lesson here: voting for the lesser of two evils generally produces
greater evil. The victor is generally a “go along to get along”
sort of fellow. He gets along famously with the power brokers who
make most of the policy decisions, either Council on Foreign Relations
Team A or Council on Foreign Relations Team B.
decade, generation after generation, die-hard party voters fail
to learn this lesson. Larry McDonald learned it. He learned it too
one has to vote for the lesser of two evils. It is sufficient that
voters show up to vote against local bond issues. "None of
the above" works just fine for everything else. "Don’t
tap that screen!"